It may have taken almost ten years to get this far, but a new 14-acre open-air shopping centre anchored by Walmart is not a foregone conclusion in Richmond.
Plans for the city’s latest major shopping mall – between Alexandra Road and Alderbridge Way at Garden City Road – were designed to create a West Cambie urban village centre, or “Garden at Central City” as it would be known.
The proposal was finally presented to city council’s planning committee Tuesday afternoon, during a lengthy three-hour meeting.
A major stumbling block, however, arrived when city councillors stalled on the staff assertion that the realignment of an Alexandra and Leslie connector road was “critical” to the development and that the applicant is responsible for any improvements needed.
Project proponent SmartCentres has been unable to buy the five properties vital for construction of the connector road and has proposed, instead, a north-south “High Street” running down the middle of the development, linking Alexandra and Alderbridge, and improvements to surrounding intersections.
Such measures, labeled as “second best alternative” by city staff, will suffice for around ten years, by which time they say the original connector road will almost certainly have to be in place.
What then irked city council was a deal brokered between staff and SmartCentres for the developer to pay 59 per cent of the projected $11 million cost (in 10 years) of purchasing the connector road properties and building the road.
Less than impressed with that deal, city council have sent the plans back to staff, with the direction that the connector has to built before the development can proceed and all construction costs absorbed by the proponent.
And with the city’s general manager of planning and development, Joe Erceg, telling council Tuesday that, after years of negotiating, the applicant’s offer is pretty much final, it casts doubt on the entire project’s ability to move forward.
“They should be providing the road themselves, this is a net loss to the city,” argued Coun. Harold Steves, highlighting the loss of a natural park on the site.
Planning chair Coun. Bill McNulty was worried the city could be setting a precedent by allowing a developer to proceed without constructing necessary roads.
“Is this going to be our policy from now on?” he asked staff.
“Typically, we would require a road to be built,” Erceg said.
During their presentation to council, SmartCentres cited the “significant amount of economic impact” and “improved amenities” for the West Cambie area from the development, such as: 975 employees; $2.5 million per year in property taxes; $7.2 million in one-time development cost charges.
Highlighting the peak-time gridlock at Steveston Highway and No. 5 Road as an example, Coun. Evelina Halsey-Brandt said the connector road would probably be needed long before the ten years stated if the development were to go ahead.
One of the neighbours on that connector road route, who has thus far refused to sell out, told council of several different realtors approaching him over the years to sell up to an “anonymous” buyer.
“I was told ‘your house is going to back onto a shopping centre, it’s going to have trucks going by all day and night,’” said Greg Nicholson.
“I’m hearing today that they can’t buy these properties? They can if they offer the right amount.
“I like where I live. It’s close to shops, the highway, the airport, why would I move?”
Steves said he wants the whole project punted back to staff, with “real land, real trees and real park, rather than a fake park and fake birds,” referring to SmartCentres’ landscaping plans and offer of a small community park on the site.
“The road is a deal-breaker for me,” added McNulty.
The hefty plans involve a 36,000-squaremetre development split into an east and west portion, partly on the West Cambie Natural Park in a designated environmentally sensitive area (ESA).
A 15,000-square-metre, three-storey Walmart would anchor the eastern section, while an unknown 9,000-square-metre store would anchor the west.
The rezoning application by SmartCentres proposes a new "High Street" be created between the portions, running north/south to connect Alderbridge and Alexandra and 1,153 parking stalls will be available.
Even before Tuesday’s impasse, the project has some serious hurdles to overcome, according to McNulty, and local environmental campaigner Michael Wolfe, whose home neighbours the development.
McNulty expressed reservations about the adequacy of the development's two entrances, on Alderbridge and Alexandra, to deal with the volume of traffic traveling east and west.
"People are going to have to get there by car, that's a problem in one of the city's busiest arterials," he added.
Meanwhile, Wolfe, a longtime advocate for protecting the environment in the city, has been against the Walmart proposal from its infancy.
"I live in the immediate area and, ever since (Walmart bought the land) we've lost the community feeling," said Wolfe, explaining the area is now all about land speculation, motivating people to sell up and ship out.
"It's all about how much money everyone could make and now we have vacant lots, an unsafe neighbourhood where nobody talks to each other anymore; there's no community.
"It was the beginning of the end when they bought the land here. The community and the environment have been eroded over those years."
Wolfe said the company has, despite ring-fencing trees on the land to apparently protect them, no intention of protecting the surrounding environment.
"They will cut down small forests here and replace it with junk trees that will not buffer sound, can't grow and will not prevent flooding," lambasted Wolfe.
"This development will be a huge heritage loss to the city. We're basically giving Walmart a clean slate here."